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Farm workers don't have to be poor; the bosses say higher wages would mean fewer jobs. Don't believe them.

The bosses say higher wages would mean fewer jobs. Don't believe them.

Sometimes the news from south Texas seems like news from the Third World. Like when the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) recently adopted a new policy of requiring immigrant aliens to remain at their point of entry into the country pending the lengthy processing period. Harlingen, Texas, one of the main immigrant thoroughfares in the Rio Grande Valley, was quickly overwhelmed with several thousand Central Americans forced to loiter in buildings and sleep in the streets. Things got so bad that the cops finally shut down the town's INS office.

While this seems distressing, there are other folks in Texas who endure much worse-working below minimum wage for years at a time, suffering Third World-caliber filth and disease, and dying 20 years beforetheir time. These people are already U.S. citizens or at least hold the legal status Harlingen's minions were clamoring for. If you think you'd never do anything to support exploitation like this, maybe you should stop eating that salad.

When I visited La Frontera, Texas it resembled a Central American town, filled with the sounds of roosters crowing and mothers yelling in Spanish, the cries of children playing in old tires in front of small wooden houses, and the scent of smoke from burning trash. There was neither garbage collection nor a paved road. And La Frontera had no fresh water.

From the outside, Luis and Oralia Trevino's home in La Frontera, with its clean white paint and red roof, looked like it belonged on any prim Main street. But inside, the Trevinos' family pictures-Louis and Oralia have four children-were tacked up against a few planks that only suggested walls. The living room couch sat on a floor made of boards and sawdust.

Tommy Helle's family has been farming in the Rio Grande valley since the 1920s. In his early forties, he is the head of Helle Farms, which he owns with his father and two younger brothers. Helle Farms grows about 4,000 acres of vegetables and melons, and Helle Tomato is the largest tomato producer in the valley. Helle's office in the town of Mission is decorated with paintings and sculptures of tomatos and wall hangings from Texas A&M, where he earned a degree in agricultural economics.

Driving around his farms in his white suburban van with two cellular phones, Helle says that if his regular employees need money for food or medicine to tide them over when there is no work, he lends it to them, taking it out of their paychecks when work starts again. "The image of the farmer is of someone who oppresses labor and tries to get it for nothing," Helle says. But he wants to set me straight"On my farm, everyone makes minimum wage."

Los loopholes

The residents of La Frontera are among the valley's 200,000 migrant farm workers and their families, who spend the winter months weeding, thinning, and picking valley produce and in the spring or summer pile into old cars and follow apples or beets north to Minnesota and New York. Luis Trevino was born in Mexico, but Oralia and the children, like most people in La Frontera, were born in the United States.

Farm workers' life expectancy is about 25 percent shorter than the national average; their infant mortality rate, 25 percent higher. They are the secondpoorest occupational group in the country, ahead only of domestics. The average per capita income of farm workers in San Juan, Texas is around $1,400-less than the average income in Mexico. The workers make higher hourly wages in the U.S. than they did in Mexico but, due to the overflow of labor, usually end up working fewer hours. The local unemployment rate is about four times the U.S. average. Farm workers in Texas do not receive overtime and are virtually uncovered by labor-relations or safety laws. There is no minimum wage on very small farms, and even at the biggest ones workers are often cheated out of the $3.35 minimum.

Farm work runs like Kelly Girl office help. Growers contract a crew leader, usually a Hispanic ex-farm worker who owns a bus. He in turn hires the farm workers.

The crew leader makes 90 cents for each bushel of spinach, for example, and then pays his field hands 50 cents per bushel. Supposedly coming out of the other 40 cents is Social Security, a safe bus for workers, toilets, fresh drinking water, and unemployment and workers' compensation insurance, Probably not. Especially when you don't pay for all those extras, crew leader can be a lucrative profession. Ruben Saenz, the head of the valley's crew leader organization, says that some crew leaders make $250,000 a year.

Saenz's membership files contain lists of violations of even the few legal protections afforded Texas farm workers-failure to pay wages when due, failure to keep records, unsafe transport, hiring illegal aliens. "It's harassment from the Wage and Hour people," he says defensively. I ask how many of his crew leaders were harassed that way"I'd say a hundred percent," he replies.

During my stay in the valley, I heard dozens of horror stories about crew leaders. The son of Cirilo Mendoza filed a union complaint alleging that a crew leader told his father to wait in the bus all day after his father complained of chest pains. When the workday was finished, the crew leader drove the crew back to the International Bridge and then called an ambulance. Mendoza died in the hospital. Many workers and their unions and lawyers told me of crew leaders who don't provide water or toilets; who drive workers in unsafe trucks; who withhold and then illegally pocket Social Security; who house workers in buildings with no water, heat, or blankets; who expose them to deadly pesticides; or who pay by-the-bucket rates that don't add up to the minimum wage.

Overall, this complete abdication of responsibility reminds me of Latin America (where I've worked as a reporter for the past several years). But in Latin America, the roots of this powerlessness are centuries old. In Texas it was achieved by design.

Part of the problem is certainly that farm workers were specifically exempted from every major piece of social legislation of the New Deal-the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Social Security Act, the Occupational Health and Safety Act, and the National Labor Relations Act, As a result, farm workers were at the outset excluded from laws guaranteeing a minimum wage, Social Security, unemployment insurance, management recognition of labor unions, health and safety standards, and protection against child labor. Workers' compensation, which was passed on a state-by-state basis, excluded farm workers everywhere but in Ohio and New Jersey.

This meticulous set of exceptions didn't happen because there was something intrinsically different about agricultural labor. It came about because in the 1930s and 1940s, when all that labor legislation was written, farmers were a powerful lobby. In addition, most farm and domestic workers were black. Excluding the two largest categories of black labor was a price President Franklin Roosevelt paid to win support for the New Deal from southern congressmen.

Over the years Texas farm workers have received-at a shockingly leisurely pace-some of the legal protections they were originally denied. In 1950, they were brought into Social Security; in 1966, many categories of them were guaranteed the federal minimum wage; and in the mid-1980s, the Texas legislature brought their work under the state's workmen's compensation plan. But these extra rights haven't made much difference. "The crew leaders now have to pay Social Security, federal and state unemployment insurance, workmen's compensation, etc.," explains Marc Linder, an attorney with Texas Rural Legal Aid, a tax-supported organization that handles farm workers' civil claims against farmers and crew leaders, "so they just take it out of what they used to pay the workers. In effect, the workers are themselves subsidizing their new benefits."

Such abuses are at bottom made possible by the tremendous labor pool. Even though workers may end up poorer in south Texas than in northern Mexico, they still want to come to the U.S. to work or live here legally. They still stream across at Hidalgo and the other border towns. "There were so many people here looking for farm work legally even before the liberalized immigration laws," reports Linder, "that if there weren't a minimum wage, people would probably take jobs at about $2 an hour."

Progress, Texas style

Most people's awareness of farm workers came and went during the late 1960s and early 1970s when the United Farm Workers (UFW) ran the grape and lettuce boycotts that eventually led to collective bargaining contracts with California growers. Cesar Chavez began organizing in California in 1962 and won the contracts 13 years later. Chavez's principal weapon was the boycott, not the strike, and he succeeded only by focusing all his resources on California, a state with liberal union laws, a highly boycottable, specific-to-California product like grapes, and a liberal legislature and a pro-farm workers governor, Jerry Brown.

Texas's unions, by contrast, are weak. There is no collective bargaining agreement between Texas farm workers and growers. This accounts for much of the workers' predicament. But even when the laws have favored workers, often law enforcement has not. The Texas Rangers brutally broke up the state's first farm-labor strike in 1966. In 1974, the Supreme Court admonished the Rangers for acting as the personal police force of the growers. During a demonstration on his ranch on Memorial Day 1975, a farmer named C.K. Miller shot 11 people with a 12-gauge sh"I didn't shoot at them," he later corrected a television reporter. "I shot them'" Despite dozens of witnesses, a grand jury did not indict him.

Ten years later almost to the day and almost in the same spot, Miller's son Chet shot at four Mexicans who had crossed the river onto the property. One jumped in the river and was drowned. This time there was some progress, Texas-style. Unlike his father, Chet Miller was convicted.

Farmers say that their animosity towards the unions does not stem from self-interest. Their position is that higher salaries or better working conditions would force them to cut back on jobs.

Indeed, even with all the substandard and unsupervised conditions, the biggest complaint of workers and union organizers is not low pay but too little work. But a look at the economics of vegetable farming shows that the trade-off does not work as neatly as farmers claim and workers fear.

The farmers' case does not hold up, because farmers do not behave the way they talk. Despite hard times, vegetable farmers have not mechanized, moved their operations to Mexico, changed crops, or shut down on any significant scale. Nor did they do so in California following the wage increases won there by the UFW. In fact, the valley's production is up.

What the farmers' behavior shows is that while labor costs are one factor in their business decisions, they are not the only one. Hourly wage rates in Mexico are currently less than a tenth of those in Texas, certainly a big enough difference to have already pulled farming out of Texas if that were the decisive consideration.

Supply is what's decisive. Vegetable farming is like high-stakes gambling. The price shippers offer to farmers depends on the supply not just in Texas but also elsewhere. So price finally depends most of all on the weather. The system most farmers use is to have a huge crop in the field the year gold is struck, which can make up for four or five bad years. After they take out their profits, farmers tend to turn as much money as they can back into the land in order to catch that big harvest. That includes the funds they should spend on more decent wages.

And this tight-fisted approach is exacerbated by the cuts taken by distributors and other middlemen. Between the Safeway and the farm there are so many profits taken that it's estimated that if consumers paid an extra nickel for lettuce, the farmer would get only two-thirds of a penny more. So, the farmers reason that they couldn't give workers any kind of a real raise without pricing themselves right out of the market. Is this true? Well, with such a large labor pool available, the farmers don't have to find out. There are plenty of workers in south Texas who will take the wages just where they are.

Worse still, in the Rio Grande Valley farmers could cut wages in half and still have fields full of pickers. Just as the available supply of produce dwarfs all other price considerations, the available supply of labor makes all other wage considerations unimportant. Farmers pay workers poorly not because they have to, but because they can.

A morning at the bridge

Without exception, the farmers I spoke with said that the way farm workers live now is right and natural. At lunch one day, a farm manager abruptly ended a conversation about wages to tell me that the new immigration bill would allow the Mexicans to retake Texas. "Do you know how many of them there are?" she asked me with alarm. "And they're already all on welfare. Just go ask in any of the schools."

"That's a joke," said another farmer uneasily.

"She's telling a joke."

But she wasn't telling a joke. Helle, whose family has owned his farm for four generations, once told me in all seriousness, "The workers may not have anything, but I didn't either when I was 17'"

"If they stay in Mexico," Newt Dyer, another vegetable farmer, told me, "they'll do nothing but carry tortillas on their heads."

The Trevinos provide at least one counterexample to these Texas truisms. Oralia is very proud that her children have missed only one day of school due to the family's summer trips north. One son wants to become an airplane mechanic, the other a welder. Blanca, a high-school junior, is in a college-prep program and hopes to go to the University of Texas. Her National Honor Society silver plaque is prominently displayed in the Trevinos' house.

Another hopeful sign is that more MexicanAmericans are winning political office in the state, although, as the majority of Hispanic crew leaders illustrates, this is no guarantee of sensitivity to workers' problems. Hispanics now hold three of the valley's four seats in the state legislature, and not coincidentally, in just this past year, Texas passed a right-to-know pesticide law and extended unemployment compensation privileges to farm workers. Additionally, some of the county commissioners have been filing injunctions to insure that new neighborhoods where farm workers locate have water and roads. And some lawsuits have forced growers to make small changes. Yet these gains mean little in the face of the valley's current economic slump brought on by Mexico's own financial crisis.

That this is the fundamental truth can be seen every morning at the International Bridge at Hidalgo. At 5:30 on a typical morning, a crowd of men has already started to gather under the overhang of a nearby shopping-center roof. They are looking at the televisions in a duty-free shop window as they wait for crew leaders to pull up in their school buses. It's still dark. About a hundred feet away a line of lights from the border patrol booths stretches across the haze.

During the onion harvest in March and April, there are 1,000 people here, but it's February now and there are only 200 workers waiting at the bridge.

The luckier migrants, like the Trevinos, have regular, good summer work and a car. Those not so lucky come to the bridge, hoping to find a good day's picking or better, a good trip, with lots of 10-hour workdays and a piece rate that averages $7 an hour.

But the good trips are rare. Margarito Rios certainly has been having trouble drawing any. One summer, he says, he was recruited to go to Pecos and harvest melons. Despite the promise of 8- or 10-hour workdays seven days a week, there was work only two or three hours a day. After two weeks of making barely enough to buy groceries, he wanted to go home. But his crew leader refused to give him his pay early so he could leave. Rios filed a suit through Texas Rural Legal Aid. Nothing happened, but Rios feels the crew leaders blacklisted him for it. "The crew leaders call me 'el peor guy,'-the worst guy," he says. Last year he made about $800.

The law says that if a worker is making an overnight trip, the crew leader must show the worker in writing what kind of work it will be, his hours, pay, and the ownership of the field. But the futility of the law is apparent after a few minutes at the bridge.

I always wondered why so many farm workers I spoke with told me they had filed suits. Now I knew why. The ones who complain are the ones who take chances, and talking to me was taking a chance. Most farm workers would never go up to a crew leader to ask what he was paying. He could choose from dozens of silent, hoping people; why pick someone who asks questions?

Margarito Rios, "el peor guy," was not chosen to work this day. I approach Rios after two full buses have already gone. He comes to the bridge every day, he says, and last week and this week he hasn't worked at all. It is already completely light and the remaining bus in the parking lot is filling up fast. "The onion harvest is coming," he says, eyes brightening. "Then they need so many people that I bring my relatives." After waiting around for another hour, Rios goes home.
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Author:Rosenberg, Tina
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Apr 1, 1989
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